November 2, 2015

When is an Amazon employee not an Amazon employee? On payday, says a new lawsuit

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Treating employees like independent contractors should make Amazon sad

Last week, Amazon, a company not unfamiliar with litigation, was hit with a new lawsuit. The case, Taree Truong et al. v. Amazon.com et al, was filed by four former delivery drivers for Amazon Prime Now. They allege that they were misclassified as independent contractors despite behaving very much like employees. This misclassification, they say, deprived them of wages, benefits, and legal protections.

Amazon Prime Now—a service that delivers stuff people don’t really need and does it really quickly, because if a customer wants Hot Pockets in under two hours, a customer must receive Hot Pockets in under two hours—has been expanding across the country since it launched in 2014; it’s now active in fifteen American cities. But in its relentless determination to keep costs down as it has grown (see also: air conditioners, ambulances), Amazon may have forgotten that when you hire people, you actually have to treat them like people you’ve hired.

Amazon insists that its Prime Now drivers are independent contractors, like Uber drivers or TaskRabbit couriers. This categorization is hugely controversial in and of itself (and it’s the subject of much ongoing litigation), but according to the drivers who filed the Amazon suit, in this case it’s nothing short of irrelevant.

According to the suit, the four drivers—Taree Truong, Khaled Alkojak, Olga Georgieva, and Cynthia Miller—wore Amazon uniforms, delivered only to Amazon customers, worked exclusively out of Amazon warehouses, and were tracked by Amazon to ensure that they make their deliveries within a two-hour window. None of which sounds much like independent contracting.

And none of which was accompanied by basic legal protections that employees are entitled to. According to Chris Kirkham’s report on the suit in the Los Angeles Times:

Although drivers are paid $11 an hour, the suit contends that many are in reality receiving less than California’s $9 minimum wage after factoring in expenses such as gas, tolls and maintenance.

If drivers arrived even one minute outside the required two-hour delivery window, they could be disciplined or fired, the plaintiffs allege. Lawyers for the four named plaintiffs are seeking class-action status in the suit.

“They knew exactly where we were every single minute,” said Cynthia Miller, one of the named plaintiffs in the suit, who also delivered packages in Orange County. “We were told when to take a lunch, when we get there, when we get to leave.”

The fight over employee classification isn’t going away, and neither are the lawsuits. Every startup that relies on contingent labor, from Homejoy to Lyft to Instacart, is involved in these kinds of fights, and some—like Homejoy—have already shut down as a result.

And as the Amazon case shows, it’s not just new disruptors who are finding themselves the subjects of serious scrutiny. Indeed, earlier this year, FedEx Ground agreed to a $227.5 million settlement with delivery drivers who had also been classified as independent contractors.

Which should make Amazon uneasy. As should the fact that the lead attorney on the FedEx case, Beth Ross, is representing the four Amazon drivers.

 

 

Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.

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